From Maps to Search to Google+, Google unloads improvements across the board

Google execs cram dozens of announcements into the opening keynote at Google I/O

In an extensive keynote this morning at Google I/O, company bigwigs unveiled a dizzying array of new products and features spanning the company's technology portfolio, including Google Play, Android developer tools, Google Compute Engine, Google Maps, Google Search, Google+, a new music service, and more.

Though there weren't any major announcements -- say, a new version of Android -- plenty of juicy tidbits were introduced to tantalize developers and end-users alike.

Google puffs up its cloud
On the cloud front, Google announced the general availability of Google Compute Engine, the company's environment for running virtual machines. Compute Engine, available immediately via, now includes such features as shared-core instances, aimed at low-intensity workloads; advanced routing, to help users create gateways and VPN servers for apps that span local networks and the Google cloud; and large persistent disks that support up to 10TB per volume.

Google also unveiled App Engine 1.8.0, which includes a limited preview of the PHP runtime. The addition of PHP will enable developers to run open source apps like WordPress. It also offers deep integration with other parts of Cloud Platform, including Google Cloud SQL and Cloud Storage, according to Google Senior VP Urs Holzle.

The new version of App Engine also enables users to more easily build modular applications. Users can partition apps into components with separate scaling, deployments, versioning, and performance settings.

Additionally, Google unveiled Google Cloud Datastore, a fully managed and schemaless solution for storing nonrelational data. The service is based on App Engine High Replication Datastore, and it features automatic scalability and high availability, along with capabilities like ACID transactions, SQL-like queries, and indexes.

Speak, and ye shall search
Google revealed a forthcoming "conversational assistant" for Google Search, capable of answering spoken questions -- "Will it be sunny in Santa Cruz this weekend?" for example. Once Google delivers an answer, you can continue the conversation with follow-up questions like, "How far it from here?" or "How about Monterey?" according to Google Senior VP Amit Singhal.

Google also announced updates to Google Now, an Android app that delivers personalized information on the fly by generating "cards" with information based on a user's location and activities. It can present information on such topics as traffic, weather, sports, flights, appointments -- and with the update, public transit commute times, movies, TV shows and video games. Google Now also includes reminder functionality, which can be triggered by a time or a place. For example, you could set up a reminder to call your manager when you arrive at the airport. If you're about to miss the last train home, Google Now can remind you that you'd better leave.

Plotting better maps
Google also unveiled a new version of Google Maps, which is more comprehensive and accurate, plus it delivers enhanced imagery and navigation. Beyond tweaking the appearance of maps to highlight only roads and landmarks that are important to the user (such as just the roads you need to worry about when driving to a destination). What's more, Google has designed the new version of Maps to tailor itself to users. "When you set your Home and Work locations, star favorite places, write reviews and share with friends, Google Maps will build even more useful maps with recommendations for places you might enjoy," said the Google Maps team.

Among other improvements to Maps, search results appear directly on maps with brief descriptions and other information, such as recommendations from peers. Info cards provide information like business hours, ratings, and reviews.

Google+ gets a makeover
Google announced some changes to its social networking program, the most interesting being the creation of a stand-alone version of Google Hangouts. The free app, which runs on Android and iOS, combines text, photos, and live video. Features include the ability to review conversation history with a swipe and the ability to inject images into conversations.

Speaking of images, Google has added photo-editing and enhancing features to Google+, including an instant upload feature, with which you can have every photo you take saved to the cloud (up to 15GB worth) for free. There's an Auto Highlight feature, which automatically sifts through images to de-emphasize duplicates, blurry images, and poor exposures while highlighting pictures of key people and landmarks. A new Auto Enhance feature automatically improves brightness, contrast, saturation, structure, noise, and focus.

Finally, a feature dubbed Auto Awesome creates new images based on a set of photos in a library. For example: If you were to upload a few family portraits, Google+ would sift through them for everyone's best smile and stitch them together into a single shot.

This story, "From Maps to Search to Google+, Google unloads improvements across the board," was originally published at Get the first word on what the important tech news really means with the InfoWorld Tech Watch blog. For the latest developments in business technology news, follow on Twitter.

Copyright © 2013 IDG Communications, Inc.

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